Born: April 11, 1935 (Extension, Louisiana)
Died: January 23, 1997 (at home, Los Angeles)
Richard Berry, name-checked on the cover of "Freak Out!" (1966) under the heading "These People Have Contributed Materially In Many Ways To Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them" was the original writer and performer of "Louie Louie" (itself based on "El Loca Cha Cha", by Rene Touzet); for this reason, Berry holds a permanent place of honor in the history of rock & roll. Beyond that, though, Berry was an important if secondary figure of the early - and mid -'50s Los Angeles R&B scene.
Soon after his birth the family moved to Los Angeles.
As a teenager, with The Flairs and as a solo act, Berry recorded quite a few singles that demonstrated his versatilty with ballads, novelty songs, and even Little Richard-styled numbers. His facility with deep-voiced, comic material was a clear forerunner of The Coasters, and in fact he was the uncredited lead singer on Leiber & Stoller's "Riot in Cell Block No. 9", recorded by The Robins (1954, Spark 103), later to mutate into The Coasters. He took another uncredited vocal as Etta James' deep-voiced sparring partner on "Roll with Me, Henry", one of the biggest R&B hits of the mid-'50s. Berry originally recorded "Louie Louie" in 1956; the record was a regional hit in several West Coast cities, but no more than that.
Berry's recording career petered out in the late '50s, though he remained an active performer. In the early '60s, several Northwest bands seized upon "Louie Louie" as cover material, scoring sizable regional hits; finally, in 1963, The Kingsmen broke the song nationally, reaching number two. In the decades since then, "Louie Louie" became one of the most oft-covered rock standards of all time; there are probably well over 1000 versions by now. The song was investigated by the FBI, and inspired parades and campaigns to adopt it as the official song of the State of Washington. The original version, ironically, remains extremely difficult to find, appearing only on obscure compilations (the Berry version on Rhino's "Louie Louie" anthology is a re-recording). For Berry, there was a happy ending; in the late '80s, he regained the rights to his song that he had lost many years ago.
Zappa quoted Berry's Louie Louie numerous times in his work.
Berry is listed as an influence in the list of names printed in the liner notes of "Freak Out!" (1966). He named Berry's entire work as an honorable mention in his favorite records' list in Faves, Raves And Composers In Their Graves.